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Entries in war (132)


General Roberts' tent

General Roberts in his tent, with his 2 Gurkha, 2 Sikh and 2 Pathan orderlies standing watch outside. 4th Punjab Infantry

General Roberts during the invasion of Afghanistan in 1879: his tent actually has furniture in it.  
The Second Afghan War was the result of the overturn of a diplomatic treaty between Russia and India by Lord Lytton who wanted regime change in Afghanistan deposing Sher Ali, the Amir and studiously neutral, friends with both Russia under Tsar Alexander II and Britain under Queen Victoria, then Yacub Khan who drew a pension from both the Russians and the British, for Abdur Rahman, a steadier friend of the British.  Well, it is all much more complex than this; Persia, now Iran was involved, it had started with the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838, and continued on to the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919.  Isn't it interesting how some things never change.  

Soldiers such as the Highlanders and the Liverpool Regiment found the terrain impossible, the summer weather unbearable, the winter weather bitter, the enemy invisible, allies such as the 29th Punjabis, divided in their loyalties – they were probably saved by the 5th Gurkhas and an implacable sense of historical right.

Nineteenth-century Russia was as imperialistic as Britain.  Russia wanted access through the Straights of Constantinople, and so wanted Turkey. Turkey had been allowed independence by Britain whose navy was able to blockade the Dardenelles and thus the Black Sea and all the Russian ports.  If they did that, Russia threatened to cross Afghanistan and take India.  But India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire: it wasn't going to happen.  The Great Game, it continues.



Royal Mail. series of 50, produced by the Royal Mail in conjuction with Wills Tobacco, circa 1930

When mail was in an envelope, with stamps, delivered by hand no matter where you were or what you were doing, mail delivery scheduled the day, the week, the month; time lags were sometimes great, pictures were rare and precious.  Yet, yet, society functioned, ideas were exchanged, romances grew, news was heard. 

Why must everything be instant now? Maybe that isn't the question.  Perhaps it is something about patience, and lack of it.  It isn't about technology, but something that drives technology.  That progress has always equalled speed: speed of change and literally going faster.  The underpinning of sustainability discussions is the interrogation of 'progress' and whether or not it can still be seen as a postitive, or is it just a pernicious aspect of modernism.  it is an old debate, as old as the enlightenment.  What is surprising is that it can still be made.  



French Air Service WWI, Royal Air Force WWI-present, Royal Canadian Air Force 1946-67, 1967-present

Roundels are identifying insignias, usually in military use, meant for easy identification of vehicles and aircraft.  Roundel is a heraldic term: circle.  The French Air Force was the first to use this identification system in WWI: the tricolour in a 1:2:3 proportion.  The Royal Flying Corps followed, with the colours reversed.  All the Commonwealth air forces used the RAF roundel until 1946 when they were redesigned for specific countries.  
The RCAF roundel from 1946-1967 used a winsome maple leaf; after that, it became the maple leaf of the flag.

Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa 1927-46, 1947-57The Royal Australian Air Force put a red kangaroo in the centre of its roundel; the RNZAF a kiwi.  After 1946 Rhodesia put three spears over the centre of the RAF roundel; the South African Air Force, from 1927-1947, an orange centre, from 1947-57 an orange springbok. Now the South African roundel is very complicated: an eagle over a scalloped fort shape.

The original striped roundels were clearly for wartime identification when recognition must be instant and if the markings are indistinct, lethal. Also, the Allies were all pulling together under the RAF, thus they mostly used the RAF insignia.  WW2 was the last gasp of the British Empire, after it came the waves of decolonisation, 'empire' became an unuseable term, replaced by the more anodyne Commonwealth which today is almost without meaning — even the beautiful 1962 Commonwealth Institute building in London (listed Grade II) is now occupied by the Design Museum.  Commonwealth declarations of national identity within the dark blue border of the old British empire were a slow transition to contemporary warfare where, for example, the Canadian Forces operate under NATO command, whose roundel seems, graphically speaking, very ambiguous.


RCAF colours

H M the King inspecting aircraft, Thorney Island. Lambert & Butler's Cigarettes: Interesting customs and traditions of Navy, Army & Air Force. 1939, set of 50.

The RAF uniform was designed in 1920: capacious pockets, belted, long, deep vents, well-proportioned: it made everyone look tall. The service dress, above, remained unchanged until the 1960s.  All the Commonwealth air forces: the RCAF, RAAF, RNZAF, RSAAF had the same uniforms, nice smooth dark grey-blue worsted, unlike the scratchy army, evidently. The caps were quite amazing: they unfold to make a balaclava of sorts.

RCAF tartanThe RCAF tartan was invented in 1942, supposedly on PEI, probably at the Summerside base.  The CO of the base, nameless in the DND account, designed the tartan using red, blue and black pencils.  I like this very much: ordinary pencils were black graphite; red and blue leads, often in one pencil, were traditionally used in accounting, so the colours come from just general office equipment.  How very modest, to work within the limitations of one's desk.

Although one can buy the above muffler from something called Heritage Brands, the image on the DND website is more how I remember it — more like a pencil drawing:

The Air Force Tartan, August 15, 1942


CEF formation patches

3rd Canadian Division, 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade flashes, WWI. Player's Cigarette Cards, 2nd Series, No. 120.

These were the badges worn on sleeves and berets, painted on trucks and on signs identifying the units.  They had to be readable at a distance and when found on a body lying in the mud in a trench, so they couldn't be too fussy.  The Division patches of the Canadian Expeditionary Force followed a simple ordering system: the square colour block indicates the division, the brigade is the colour above it, the shape above it indicates the battalion.

3rd Division, CEF. 1914-1918

All very tidy in the diagrams, what they looked like on the uniforms is somewhat more makeshift.

85th Battalion, 4th Canadian Division, formation patch


Alesia II


Bernard Tschumi. Alesia Museum, Burgundy, France, 2011.

This Tschumi drawing of Alesia looks like a Roman bracelet flung onto the ground a long time ago, grass and weeds growing through it.  There is something about this project that keeps raising these images of decorative precious adornments.

Bracelets, Roman Britain, buried in the 5th century AD, now in the British Museum. 
Found at Hoxne, Suffolk in 1992. Alongside approximately 15,000 coins were many other precious objects, buried for safety at a time when Britain was passing out of Roman control.


Tschumi's Alesia

Bernard Tschumi Architects. Alesia Museum, Burgundy, France 2011

Bernard Tschumi's interpretive centre for the battle of Alesia, 52 BC, where Julius Caesar's army surrounded Vercingetorix's Gauls: the site, in Burgundy, has this building referencing Roman wood fortifications, and will eventually have a second stone building up a hill, referencing the besieged Gauls. 

The battle was actually a long freeze: Caesar's troops circled the base of the plateau with 18km of 4m high fortifications, blockading the garrison of 80,000 soldiers at the top.  Vercassivellaunus, Vercingetorix's cousin attacked the Roman fortifications with 60,000 men, but Caesar's forces held the line.  Aside from the delight in typing the wonderful names of the Gauls, it occurs to me that these were very large armies, in modern terms the size of the Canadian Forces in total.

Caesar's eventual victory marked the end of Celtic power in what is now the territory from France and Belgium to northern Italy.

The exterior screen of Tschumi's Alesia museum is wood, the shape and pattern bring to mind the Greek key meander tiara of Alice of Battenburg: there is something both victorious and celebratory about this circlet sitting on the Burgundian plains.  Its pattern puts the screen into motion, it dazzles.  

Tiara of Princess Alice of Battenburg, circa 1903, her marriage to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark.

From their fortress the Gauls could see the Roman encirclement, which would have been nothing as solid as this single-point museum, thus the museum roof has been turfed as a displaced ground plane to indicate the original view from the Gallic heights. 
The roof planted with trees and shrubs is also a reminder of helmets with leaves and branches stuck into a netted cover as camouflage: a military strategy as old as war and still in use.

Image from from the Axis Reenactment Forum, where hot battles rage over reenactments that put Italians into German camo and vice versa



Vitaly Arutyunov The Mamayev Hill series, First prize, World Press Photo 1987.©RIA Novosti / TopFoto

The caption to this image reads (with a bit of editing): 'the 52m-tall monument The Motherland Calls was the tallest statue in the world when erected in 1967.  Mamayev Kurgan overlooks the city of Volograd, formerly Stalingrad, in southern Russia. The name in Russian means tumulus of Mamai. Today, Mamayev Kurgan features a memorial complex commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad.'

TopFoto is such an interesting place: each day an image from exactly 50 years ago.  It is hardly ancient history, but not only is the past a different country, but the past seems a curiously innocent and optimistic country.  1961: people had survived the war, life was getting prosperous, tragedies were passionately commemorated, as above, on the eve of the Cold War. 


gabions 2

Gabions at Studland Beach, Dorset

Gabions counter erosion on beaches, usually under soft cliffs such as limestone and sandstone, or they protect roads and paths next to the beach. Lots of them in soft calcareous and slatey southern England: above, Studland Beach in Dorset, tidy genteel gabions made by a masonry culture – they look like dry stone walls.  Below, rough gabions in rough, granitey Scotland.

Duncan Astley. Gabions at Loch Hourn, Corran, ScotlandGabions are transparent to water, but obstruct larger things: sand and rock. A near-perfect solution, water is not thwarted, it comes and goes, but in a diminished way, its force absorbed by the gabion.  The fill would be formless and weak if not held in place by the wire cage which, with the lightest of touch, forms a fighting unit of rubble.



Breach in the north wall of Fort Sumter filled with gabions, 1865. Federal Navy, seaborne expeditions against the Atlantic Coast of the Confederacy, 1863-1865.

Two more weak systems: wicker baskets and piles of rocks that together can fortify a rampart.  This particular kind of gabion can also be found in Viollet-le-Duc's Issu du Dictionnaire raisonné de L'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècleViollet-le-Duc. Gabions, 1856.

The same system is in military use today: Hesco Bastions are flat wire-reinforced canvas bags that spring open to make a drum which is then filled with material at hand. 

Donovan Wylie. Mountain Position. Mas Sum Ghar. Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, 2011This is a Canadian Forces FOB.  Hesco Bastions form a palisade. It all seems so fragile, scaffolds and gabions, yet they are capable of great protective strength. 


scaffolded domes

Taj Mahal, 1942To protect the dome of the Taj Mahal during the Second World War, it was buried in a thicket of scaffolding.  India was full of RAF bases that serviced the Burma Campaign, nearby cities were often targetted by the Japanese: for example Dum Dum airfield was near Calcutta which was bombed several times. 

The construction of the Taj Mahal in 1633 used a brick scaffold, rather than the more usual bamboo scaffolding.  The dome is brick, sheathed in marble.  The brick scaffold was as large as the building itself, built to carry the marble slabs.  It is an interesting relationship between the kind of scaffolding used and the weight of materials: hand sized bricks, laid incrementally, although monumental when finished are small units.  The marble was of a different order completely, lifted and placed by ropes and pulleys attached to the scaffold. 

The other great wartime dome survival story is St Paul's Cathedral in London, which survived. This dome is a lightweight skin over a sturdy brick cone that supports it. The scaffold is internal structure. 

Section through the dome of St Paul's Cathedral


T. Earle. Captain H E White, ca 1930, from a time when people still painted portraits.. WWI officers seemed to keep their ranks as a kind of honorific, although they were no longer in the army.

The Great War 1914-1918  67,000 enlisted Canadians killed, 173,000 wounded.
The Second World War 1939-1945  44,093 enlisted Canadians killed.  

The elision of these two wars, the poppies, the cenotaphs, the minute of silence, with contemporary veterans of ISAF in Afghanistan overlooks the fact that in the two world wars, everyone was a volunteer, rather than a professional soldier.  Today, the Canadian Forces Reserve of 27,000 members, volunteer part-time while they maintain their separate careers in the public sector.  CF: 68,000 total.  This is equal to the number of Canadians killed in WWI.  We were in Afghanistan for 10 years and lost 158 soldiers, we were in WWI for four years and lost 68,000, and in WWII for five years and lost 44,000.  The numbers are shocking.  

Below are the Attestation papers for H E White who in 1914 was 39, had four children and was happy as a clam surveying new railway routes in the Clearwater, the Rockies west of Red Deer.  His survey team consisted of him, his brother and an aboriginal crew, from whom he learned all sorts of interesting medical survival treatments using leaves and twigs.  A trapper came across their camp and told them that England was at war; they packed up, walked out and enlisted.  Harry took the whole family to England and spent the war in the Orkneys in a huge camp at Scapa Flow, the gateway to the North Sea.  He lived.  Charlie, his younger brother, was killed in the trenches almost immediately.  

The point is that they volunteered to enlist.  They weren't drafted, they weren't forced to go, they weren't soldiers.  
Of the 44,000 killed in WWII, they had ambitions of ordinary lives as teachers, librarians, artists, salesmen, farmers.  They didn't necessarily have a great desire to be a career soldier driving them to enlist.  They just did and damn it, they were killed.



Donovan Wylie 2: the architecture of war


Donovan Wylie's Kandahar outposts

copyright Donovan Wylie, Magnum. Observation Post. Exact location unknown. Kandahar Province. Afghanistan, 2011

Although Canada was part of ISAF and in Kandahar Province until just this summer, we rarely saw where they were.  Rick Mercer went to the base at Kandahar, stood in front of Tim Hortons, we saw ramp ceremonies, CF members sent messages back to their families at Christmas on CBC, but it was all in the bright lights of tv cameras and the cleanliness of the main base.  Even news reports of the poppy fields being destroyed were as beautiful as poppies are.

Donovan Wylie, a Belfast photographer, was embedded with the Canadian ISAF contingent and funded through the Bradford Fellowship 2010/11 from Bradford College, the University of Bradford and the National Media Museum, located in Bradford.  His series of photographs of FOBs is on display at the National Media Museum until mid-February 2012, and will be published in an accompanying book. 

Forward Operating Bases are just that: the forward part of the line, observation posts usually made of hesco bastions, and very, very vulnerable.  This is the Afghanistan in which our forces did their tours, and in which 158 died: dusty, brown, lunar, lonely.  We, in Canada, were never shown this environment.  Our various ministers of defence never walked into these outposts on IED mined tracks.  They never lived there.  

One of the characteristics of WWI and the horror of its trench warfare was the eternally cheerful letters from the front sent to families back home. And when those who survived finally did make it home, they never talked about it.  After seeing Wylie's photographs, I feel that we in Canada were let down by our national media, who also sent cheerful reports from the front.  Why is PTSD as epidemic as it is?  Perhaps it is because hardly anyone is talking about what happened. 


signs of remembrance

Moina Michael, secretary to the YMCA in New York, started the wearing of the poppy in remembrance of Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Through the American and the French YMCA, poppies were sold to raise money for war widows and their families.  She started by buying silk poppies at a trimmings store: the poppies actually looked like poppies.  Today, the poppy-wearing nations, generally the Commonwealth, have distinctive poppy shapes, abstracted from the original.

In Grade 2 in the annex to Craigflower School that we had, and in love with things miniature, I remember inspecting my poppy: it had the red bit, and in the centre a black piece of felt with a serrated edge and in the centre of that a tiny bright green felt dot that the pin went through.  The petals were flocked cardboard, on the back it said the poppy had been made by veterans of Canada.  The Canadian poppy was first worn in 1922, made by disabled vets in workshops in Toronto and Montreal, sponsored by the Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment (later Veterans Affairs).  It provided them a small income.

The Legion eventually took over production, and poppy production is now outsourced to a private company.  Today our poppies are stamped out of flocked plastic, so light and slippery that it is impossible to keep them on your coat unless you bend the straight pin with pliers into a sharp hook. However, ours look good on TV as they are so graphic: circular, black centre. 

The British poppy has only two petals, a plastic stem and a leaf. It is made by the British Legion in their factory in London.  As late as 2008 their poppy appeared to have four petals, circular, with leaf, but somehow two petals have been lost, or there are alternative poppy producers in Britain.

A Flanders poppy, Great Britain between the wars. Modern British poppy

The ANZAC poppy in New Zealand is similar, but without the leaf, felt not paper, and has a flag attached for the Returned Servicemen League. ANZAC Day is April 25th; Remembrance Day is a more minor memorial event. ANZAC poppies were made in New Zealand from 1931 until 2010 when the contract was moved to Australia where poppies are now assembled using parts made in China.

ANZAC poppy, New ZealandThe Australian poppy (seemingly different from the ANZAC poppy, it is a bit confusing here) is a lovely thing, it actually looks like a poppy.  First sold in 1921, the poppies were imported from France where they had been made in orphanages.  The proceeds went to the RSL for its veterans' welfare work and to the orphanages.   It seems still to be made by the Returned Services League but can't find details.

Malcolm Cowe, November 12 2010, Perth, Western Australia

In Scotland, poppies have been made in Lady Haig's Poppy Factory in Edinburgh since 1926.  It still employs 40 disabled ex-servicemen who hand-make 5 million poppies, crosses and wreaths a year.  They make a range of poppies, including these long stemmed silk poppies out of silk.  

Lady Haig's Poppy Factory poppies. Sir Alastair Irwin, Edinburgh.The poppy has never become a general symbol that slips between war and peace, battle and non-violence.  It is absolutely lodged in that one event, the Armistice at the end of The Great War, the war to end all wars, but the terms of which led to the Second World War and on to the Cold War.   It is, in McCrae's poem whence it all springs, a reminder of what are now called 'boots on the ground' – the actual people who fight our wars.



Winston Churchill demonstrating a British V for victory against Nazi Germany.

V for victory is how it was used by Churchill in WWII.  We know now how very close Britain was to defeat; it was important for Churchill to show indomitable surety that victory was nigh.  
It is a combination of the hand of solidarity and the letter V.  It is also the two-fingered Cub salute: the two fingers are the ears of Akela, the wolf cub.  You remembered that didn't you?

Victory and peace.  We also know now that victory does not automatically mean peace.  Nixon used to hold both hands up in a fractal of two-fingered Vs at the end of a two-armed V – this where the V for victory in Vietnam was at odds with the V meaning Peace, man.  Throughout the late 1960s and early 70s peace meant withdrawal, not victory, an absence of victory as the battle was given up rather than waiting for defeat.  

The V hand sign has emerged again in the Arab Spring, where valour, valediction, validity and victory has been signed by every child, every woman, every student and rebel in each country as entrenched power structures were dismantled.  Tunisia and Egypt's demonstrations were non-violent resistance movements; this didn't work in Libya and isn't working in Syria.  Here V stands for a victory not of the individual who as he is rushed off on a stretcher manages to lift a hand and weakly flash two fingers, no, here the victory is for a people who will never go back, no matter what it takes, even if it takes generations.  

A young Libyan girl flashes the "V sign" with her two fingers painted with the old national flag's colours, during a demonstration against Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi outside the court house of Benghazi.Shockingly, in looking for the images here, I found recent pictures of Ahmedinijad in Iran and Saif al Qadhafi both complacently saluting their audiences with a V: here they are indicating their roots in revolutionary movements from a long, long time ago.  The green flag of Qadhafi's revolutionary movement, the target in the Libyan uprising, represented the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya: green is the traditional colour of Islam.  Green was the colour of protest in Iran in 2009, one sees on the news Palestinian coffins draped in green.  The V and Green seem to be very specific in their applications depending on which people are using them, where and at what stage are their revolutions.

There is something about all these symbols and signs that coalesce around peace, non-violence and solidarity, and revolution, war and victory.  These conditions seem to be all very closely linked and the symbols oscillate between them.


at the sign of the fist

NEHouse. painted fist, 2009

The fist of solidarity.  No letters here, just a clenched hand as a measure of intent.  Wikipedia tells us it dates from ancient Assyria as 'a symbol of resistance in the face of violence'.  It was adopted by the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, in 1917.  It was the Republican salute in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-39, and the salute of Smith and Carlos at the 1968 Olympics during the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.  It has become a symbol for human rights.

All of these symbols originate as demonstrations against violence.  The fist works two ways: one as a punching fist, the other as a stilled hand: closed, the opposite of the open hand of the nazi salute.  It is almost as if there is an implicit threat in the fist which can be a weapon but which actually comes from numbers, rather than any threat of individual action.

All the symbols this week have been against violence at the state level: civil and human rights, disenfranchisement, discriminatory policies.  And while not all are ancient symbols, none of them are new; they aren't brands thought up by a marketting agency.  Somehow these symbols carry a great dignity with them; their original intentions are so powerful that their message bypasses the intellect.  I do wonder if this bypass of the intellect is not at the root of power, and can be used for both good and ill.


The golden fist of Qahdafi crushing an American jet, 1986. Tripoli

Below is a stencilled version of the sign for Autonomism, which is allied with socialism, marxism and anarchism, influenced by the Situationists and has a number of autonomist wings in several European countries.  As the word suggests, it favours autonomous action against the structures and processes of capitalism, rather than an sort of organised mass movement.  It appears to be more guerilla-like, under the radar, with activities such as absenteeism.  But they have a sign.  

Autonome, at the Ernst-Kirchweger-Haus in Vienna, Austria



order and disorder

Russell Bassman, May 31, 2008. Evanston Illinois

More letters: the A of anarchy and the O of order.  Proudhon, who we really should know more about and who said in 1840 that property is theft, wrote in The Confessions of a Revolutionary that 'anarchy is order without power', or often quoted as 'anarchy is the mother of order', slightly different in meaning.  Proudhon and Marx correspondid and some of the basic tenets of communism, such as wealth should be transferred from capitalists to workers comes out of this relationship. 

Black is the colour of anarchy, black for absence.

The A in an O was first used by the International Workers Association in Italy in 1868, but only became a commonly seen symbol in 1968, used by the Circolo Sacco e Vanzetti.  Sacco and Vanzetti were anarchists in early 20th century USA, whose conviction and execution for murder in 1920 remains controversial and unresolved.  Italian anarchist history is complex and long. At its most utopian, anarchy is an extreme socialism, and is against class, violence and materialism.  It hoped for revolution without violence, although violence seems to have characterised most of its actions.

But it is an easy cipher to mark on walls and has come to represent a general disaffection with government structures and all their systems of order.  Can there be order without power?  We should all read Orwell's Animal Farm again.


signs of revolutions betrayed

Bolshevik Revolution: hammer for the industrial proletariat bonded to the sickle for agricultural workers; red from the red banner of the Paris Commune, 1917

No letters here, just action: the hammer as the tool of industrialisation, the sickle the tool of agriculture.  They are wielded by hands, neither of them are weapons.  One could be writing in the world of synecdoche here, and perhaps that adds depth to a symbol, but one can also write about hammers and sickles, factories and ploughs literally, without losing any meaning.  

In pre-revolutionary Russia Orthodoxy, red was the colour of Easter and the resurrection: how easy it was to elide that with the resurrection of the Russian people, the peasants and serfs, over the European aristocracy that ruled Russia.  And how simple to equate Christ's blood with martyred revolutionary blood.  

The  Phrygian cap of Liberty, le bonnet rouge of the French Revolution: Phrygia – today's Anatolia in Turkey.  Paris, the cause of the Trojan War, was a Phrygian and wore what we could now describe as a soft Turkish fez.  Red as the colour of liberty dates from the Roman Empire when freed slaves wore red Phrygian caps. It is interesting how involved ancient Greece was in what we consider today to be the hotbed of the Middle East.  It is contiguous by land and shares the eastern Mediterranean.  Modern Greece's default from European values, as it is being put, is perhaps more deeply rooted than the EU can accept.  

In 1976 Andy Warhol did a series of silkscreens called Hammer & Sickle where he photographed an actual hammer and a hand scythe in various collaborations. No one will ever be able to convince me that Warhol and pop art were not political.  One can say Warhol valourised the American commercial landscape and endorsed celebrity, but this does not allow him a deep anarchic sense of irony, if that is not an oxymoron. 

In the depths of the cold war, by de-coupling the symbol from the tools, he referred to the Soviet Union as industry and agriculture, not nuclear bombs.  After the fall of the USSR when many previously inaccessible 'ordinary' people were interviewed and we were able to read literature of the era from the other side, what was revealed was a fear of the west and its weaponry, precisely what we had been taught to fear about the east.  What a waste of the twentieth century it all was.  So many died.


Andy Warhol. 
Hammer & Sickle, 1976 
 acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas (182.9 x 218.4 x 3.2 cm.)
 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh


signs of non-violence

the semaphore alphabet

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament symbol was designed by Gerald Holtom for the Aldermaston March at Easter, 1958.  It is composed of two semaphore letters, N and D, for nuclear disarmament.  

Semaphore, the signalling with flags, was used in both WWI and WWII and is still taught in the Navy.  For distances under 2 miles and in daylight it is faster, evidently, than flashing lights which can be more easily intercepted. The hand-held flags developed from the semaphore tower, an invention of Robert Hooke in 1684 to send messages through a series of such towers: 150 miles in two minutes according to The Flag Press.

Holtom had been a conscientious objector during WWII, so his experience of semaphoring was not learned in the Navy, but it was a familiar enough system of signs still that the N and the D, held in a circle for earth had currency.  The N and D diagram above clearly shows a boy scout demonstrating the alphabet.  

We know now that nuclear disarmament does not necessarily mean peace, it means ongoing dirty ground wars with increasingly high civilian collateral damage.  The symbol was used during the Civil Rights movement and came to be associated with non-violence, and then by the anti-Vietnam War movement.  Its now general linkage to peace has dropped all the particulars, and if there was ever a word that has become discredited by overuse and over-application it is the word peace.

The transportability of this symbol, literally as buttons, but also easily drawn, applicable to almost any kind of protest movement including the anti-abortion lobby, and its affiliation to unconventional life styles has rendered it near meaningless other than its core message that still semaphores non-violence.  This must be what has given it such a long life.

from designboom: the first badges were made by Eric Austin of Kensington CND, using white clay with the symbol painted black. They were distributed with a note explaining that in the event of a nuclear war, these fired pottery badges would be among the few human artifacts to survive the nuclear inferno.

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